Defra’s strongest team in years
AFTER the past few hectic weeks, August must come as a great relief for the political classes. For the rest of us, it provides a moment to consider how our new Prime Minister intends to look after the countryside. She isn’t a countrywoman and her constituency, Maidenhead, is largely Home Counties commuting suburbia, yet her ministerial appointments to the rural department, Defra, have been astute and carefully judged. Andrea Leadsom, the Secretary of State, was, of course, a politically driven choice, with Mrs May keeping her erstwhile challenger occupied with the Brexit fallout. However, the rest of the office bodes well for the countryside.
Although a former UKIP candidate and resolutely opposed to our membership of the EU, the Minister of State, George Eustice, is himself a practical farmer. Raised in and now representing the far South-west, his family farm raises cattle and British Lop pigs and he has genuine hands-on experience. As Parliamentary Under Secretary to Liz Truss, he won widespread respect for his attention to detail and his availability. His promotion was certainly deserved and will provide Mrs Leadsom with much-needed agricultural understanding, particularly of Britain’s marginal producers. At the Oxford Farming Conference back in January, he assured the farming community that their financial support would continue if we left the EU and the NFU has already signalled that it will be holding him to his every word.
The other side of farming, the productive arable acres of Bedfordshire, will also have their voice in Mr Eustice’s colleague, John Gardiner, formerly the Deputy Chief Whip in the Lords. A keen Remainer, he served as chief of staff of the Conservative Party under successive chairmen, but it was his success as deputy chairman of the Countryside Alliance that most recommended him to Mrs May. It’s rumoured that he’d have been happier stay- ing in his Lords post, but, as an arable farmer, widely respected in the NFU and CLA, he was too valuable not to be used as a frontline agricultural minister. He’s a tough and resilient moderniser with liberal views, yet he has a healthy respect for tradition, rides regularly to hounds and will be a doughty defender of country ways and country people.
Although not a farmer, the third member of the junior team, Dr Thérèse Coffey, represents the farming constituency of Suffolk Coastal. Her doctorate in chemistry reflects a sharp mind and an ability to get her head round the complex scientific issues with which Defra has to deal. A Remainer, elected first in 2010, she was a skilful operator as Deputy Leader of the House of Commons and made few enemies among her colleagues, even those who had not themselves been so early promoted.
Agromenes finds it difficult to remember so strong a junior Defra team. All three ministers have good environmental records, are noted for their support for agriculture and are tough operators. Mrs Leadsom would do well to give them their head and rely on their advice. After all, her job is no doddle. The department faces some very serious issues with a much depleted and somewhat limited staff. High flyers have not been attracted to Defra, however, it’s going to have much of the responsibility for implementing the Letwin urgent flood proposals, due to be published shortly, as well as the production of its own 25-year plan for Britain’s longer-term adaptation to climate change. It’s at the sharp end of the Brexit negotiations, with farming and environmental support particularly vulnerable, and it’s not up to speed on food safety, waste, and recycling. There’s much to be done and these ministers can do it if only Mrs Leadsom lets them.
All three ministers have good environmental records and are tough operators
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